Overworked, Time Poor, and Abandoned by Uncle Sam

Overworked, Time Poor, and Abandoned by Uncle Sam

Why Don’t American Parents Protest?

The story of the overworked American parent is by now well-known. Every day, millions of American parents—single and partnered, low-income and affluent—scramble to coordinate the demands of employment with their children’s need for care and supervision. In the majority of families in the United States, all the adults are in the workforce, more often than not working full time. It is not surprising that the stressed-out working parent is now a staple in multiple venues, from social science research to newspaper opinion columns to TV-land.

As Kathleen Gerson pointed out in these pages last year (“The Morality of Time: Women and the Expanding Work Week,” Fall 2004), the common wisdom in the United States generally lays the responsibility for the work-family time bind on individuals and lets American institutional realities off the hook. Conservatives typically focus on mothers, protesting that many (middle-class and well-off) women are choosing paid work over family, indulging themselves while leaving their children and husbands unattended. (Poor single mothers, of course, have long been exempted from this criticism, as they are expected to work for pay.) And many progressives, Gerson argues, have not helped matters, too often attributing Americans’ notoriously long work hours to their ever-expanding desire for consumption or their preference for the effects-oriented workplace over the strains and uncertainties of life at home.

But, in fact, the American institutional landscape deserves much of the blame. Many workplaces are still designed for workers who have no competing responsibilities, and the paucity of public policies that support working families can hardly be overstated. As Marcia Meyers and I argue in our book—Families That Work—the American state provides much less to working parents than do many other countries, especially the high-income countries of northern and western Europe.

For starters, parents in several European countries have access to multiple forms of paid family leave and to high-quality affordable child care. In addition, working-time regulations limit the imposition of excessively long weekly work hours and effectively cap the number of days worked each year. Furthermore, public measures in all European Union member countries require pay and benefit parity for part-time workers—making shorter-hour work a more feasible option. And a growing number of countries grant full-time workers the right to temporarily downsize to part-time work and/or to alter the scheduling of their assigned hours. These so-called work-family reconciliation measures are, of course, embedded in larger social protection systems that provide universal health insurance, among other crucial components. All told, these comprehensive policy packages allow parents ample latitude in deciding how to allocate their time between paid work and care. Public supports also indemnify families against substantial fluct...